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Othmar Schoeck: Life and Works.

Othmar Schoeck: Life and Works. By Chris Walton. Eastman Studies in Music. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2009. [xix, 444 pp. ISBN 978-1-58046-300-3. $70.00]

Chris Walton's new book on the twentieth-century Swiss composer Othmar Schoeck (1886-1957) is a model of what a "life and works" study should be. The author of two previous books (and several articles) on Schoeck, Walton brings to his writing two decades of research on the composer, and an extraordinarily impressive command of primary and secondary sources. Walton served as Head of the Music Division at the Zentralbibliothek Zurich, where he was responsible for oversight of the Schoeck archives. By virtue of his residence in the city where Schoeck lived for most of his life, he was able to supplement his work with the Zentralbibliothek's archival resources with numerous interviews of friends and colleagues of the composer.

Although Schoeck's music is little-performed today, in his lifetime he had a prominent career: James Joyce was to write to his daughter-in-law that "... he stands head and shoulders above Stravinsky." As a composer, his output includes hundreds of songs, eight operas, and a much smaller number of works for orchestra and chamber ensembles (including one of the few sonatas in the repertoire for bass clarinet). As a long-serving conductor of the City Orchestra of St. Gallen, he won well-deserved praise for his adventurous programming and commitment to contemporary music. He was also a pianist, performing most often as accompanist in performances of his vocal works.

Following his initial studies at the Zurich Conservatory, Schoeck spent a year in Leipzig, where he studied composition with Max Reger. He returned to Zurich, where his primary employment was as an accompanist and director of male choral organizations. He began to attract attention as a composer, and, in the years following the First World War, began to be influenced by modernist composers such as Stravinsky and the Second Viennese School; his scores from this period exhibit bitonal and altogether atonal passages, and even on occasion hints of twelve-tone organization. By the late 1920s, though, Schoeck returned to a more conservative harmonic language, a direction that became even more pronounced after the fiasco surrounding his opera, Das Schloss Durande.

As Schoeck's compositional language had become more conservative, he became a composer of interest to leading administrators in the Third Reich. With some prodding from his life-long patron, Werner Reinhart (an industrialist, philanthropist, and anti-Semite who provided financial support for a number of writers and composers), Hermann Burte was chosen as librettist for Das Schloss Durande. The opera was to be based on a novella by Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff, a source that Hermann Hesse had recommended to Schoeck some three decades earlier. Burte was a committed Nazi, and, as Walton demonstrates, the ideology of the Third Reich permeates the libretto. He was also, alas, a novice librettist, and even some of Schoeck's most fervent admirers were embarrassed both by its content and its amateurish writing.

In search of success--especially the financial rewards that might come from an extended run in a major venue--Schoeck allowed the premiere of Das Schloss Durande to take place at the Berlin Staatsoper in 1943. When no less than Hermann Goering, Hitler's Reichsmarschall, described the libretto shortly after the premiere as 'manure,' the production was closed after only a few performances, due to "other engagements" of the cast. A production in Zurich a couple of months later was also a failure. Although there is no indication at all that Schoeck was sympathetic to the Nazi regime, to many in Switzerland the libretto, and the choice of Berlin for the premiere, indicated that he had betrayed his homeland. Schoeck became seriously depressed, and in early 1944 suffered a heart attack. Walton notes that from this point on, Schoeck set only the poetry of Swiss writers.

Walton does not shy away from the unsavory aspects of Schoeck's biography. As he notes in his introduction, Schoeck was "Notoriously unpunctual ... with holes in his socks ... he spent his money as it came in, borrowed it when it didn't, then didn't pay it back ... frequently drank to excess, and was possessed of a voracious (hetero)sexual appetite, with one bed-partner at a time not always enough." The details of his difficult marriage with Hilde Bartscher, a soprano of some ability with whom Schoeck rarely deigned to perform, are a topic to which Walton constantly returns.

Walton writes superbly; his is a compelling narrative convincingly told. It will be of interest, not just to those with an interest in Schoeck or Swiss music, but to anyone engaged with the music and literature of the first half of the 20th century. Schoeck had significant interactions with many of the most important performers of the century, such as the conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler and the baritone Dietrich FischerDieskau, who was a life-long champion of Schoeck's lieder (and recorded most of them). He was a friend of the novelist and poet Hermann Hesse, and set many of Hesse's poems to music. He befriended the novelist Thomas Mann, and Walton posits (convincingly) that the relationship beween Schoeck and Hans Corrodi, Schoeck's first biographer, served as Mann's model for the relationship between Serenus Zeitblom and Adrian Leverkuhn in the novel Doctor Faustus. At various junctures in his career, Schoeck worked with many of the most prominent composers in German-speaking Europe: he conducted Hindemith as soloist in his own Viola Concerto with the St. Gallen orchestra, and Anton von Webern was engaged to prepare the piano-vocal score of Schoeck's Das Schloss Durande.

Walton's study is highly recommended for any music collections serving the postsecondary level or above. The volume has been carefully edited, and the text is generously supplemented with copious illustrations and carefully-chosen musical examples. There is a catalogue of works, an extensive bibliography of both primary and secondary sources, and index.

John Schuster-Craig

Grand Valley State University, Allendale, Michigan
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Author:Schuster-Craig, John
Publication:Fontes Artis Musicae
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2011
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